A night or two in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is an essential Japanese experience and Kyoto is the place to do it. Kyoto has the best selection of ryokan in all price ranges. Here, we explain ryokan and give our top picks, all personally inspected.
In a hurry? Scroll down for our top ryokan picks, otherwise, read the following sections for an introduction to Kyoto ryokan.
What Is A Ryokan?
Simply put, a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. That means the room and (sometimes) the entire building is Japanese style. The most important point is this: Traditional accommodations are disappearing in Asia. Other than yurts in Mongolia, there really aren’t any traditional lodgings left – only standard-issue hotels that are the same everywhere in the world. Thus, ryokan are truly special and we consider them must-do experiences in Japan.
Ishibeikoji Muan Ryokan
Luxury Ryokan vs Midrange and Budget Ryokan
You’ve probably seen pictures of ryokan. These are usually pictures of high-end ryokan, which are traditional wooden buildings with superb gardens. Kyoto’s high-end ryokan are great examples of such ryokan. However, some midrange and almost all budget ryokan are actually built inside modern buildings that look much like hotels from the outside: Only the service and the guestrooms are traditionally Japanese.
At higher-end places, you are served your meals in your room, which is a wonderful experience (see below about ryokan meals). Traditionally, even fancy ryokan had only common bathtubs, but these days, many luxury ryokan have en suite bathtubs. And all but the cheapest ryokan will have en suite toilets and sinks.
Meals at Ryokan
Luxury ryokan usually include two meals with your stay and these meals will invariably feature traditional Japanese cuisine. For dinner, that means a full kaiseki spread, while for breakfast, it means a traditional Japanese breakfast. For most people, this will be the best way to sample high-end Japanese food, especially now that elite Japanese restaurants are becoming more difficult to book. At a ryokan, with one booking you’re actually booking yourself two great restaurant meals. And, in some ways, you might consider a great ryokan to be a three-star residential restaurant. Here’s the dinner served by Ryokan Seryo in Ohara, a small village north of Kyoto:
Ryokan Seryo dinner
Most ryokan will make an effort to highlight local and regional specialities in their meals. For example, here’s a photo of the dinner spread at Nishimuraya Honken in Kinosaki during winter crab season:
Nishimuraya Honkan crab dinner
How Do You Stay at a Ryokan?
Staying at a ryokan is a little different from staying in a hotel. First, you remove your shoes in the foyer (usually where you step up from ground level into the lobby area). Next, you are shown to your room, where a cup of tea and a traditional sweet or cracker will be waiting. At luxury ryokan, you will be served dinner in your room, otherwise, you will dine in a common room with other guests, or in a restaurant. After dinner, you will take a bath either in your own private bath or in a common bath. While you are bathing, a maid will lay out your futons.
Private en suite bath at Nishimuraya Honken Ryokan
Of course, many cheaper and more modern places may skip some or all of these steps and your stay will be pretty much like staying in a hotel – the only difference will be the futons and tatami mats instead of beds and carpets.
I’ve written a detailed piece with lots of photos about staying a night in Tawaraya, Japan’s finest ryokan, which might help you decide if the ryokan experience is for you.
How Much Does It Cost to Stay at a Ryokan?
People are sometimes surprised by the rates at ryokan, which seem higher than hotels at first glance. In addition, you should keep in mind that ryokan rates are often quoted as per person, rather than per room (although on sites like Booking.com and Agoda.com the rates are shown as per room and not per person). Before you conclude that ryokan are overpriced, remember that ryokan rates usually include one or two meals, and the meals can often be elaborate kaiseki meals. If you figure in what two good meals in restaurants would cost, then the cost of a ryokan can often be quite reasonable. As a guide, here is how we divide ryokan by cost:
- budget: less than ¥15,000 per person
- mid-budget: between ¥15,000 and ¥30,000 per person
- luxury: over ¥30,000 per person
How Many Nights Should You Stay at a Ryokan?
Staying at a ryokan is a bit like staying at the house of a gracious but distant relative – there’s a certain formality. I usually recommend that people stay at a ryokan for one or two nights at the start of their time in Kyoto, and then move to a hotel to enjoy the freedom and ease of staying at a hotel. For some recommended hotels, see our Kyoto Hotels page.
Nazuna Kyoto Gosho
Kyoto’s Best Ryokan
On the following pages, I list my picks for Kyoto’s best ryokan, divided by price and category. I’ve personally inspected all of these, and family, friends and clients have stayed in them and given me their feedback. Any one of these ryokan would be a great place to sample the Japanese ryokan experience!
Kyoto’s best luxury ryokan are among the best ryokan in Japan. Here is where you can sample the true ryokan experience: a superb traditional wooden building, private gardens, sumptuous kaiseki meals, and legendary Kyoto service. For full details and our top picks, visit our Best Ryokan in Kyoto page.
Even at mid-budget prices, you can still enjoy a great ryokan experience. Your choices will range from hotel-style modern ryokan to traditional wooden ryokan. Visit our Best Mid-Budget Ryokan in Kyoto page for our top picks.
There are some great budget ryokan in Kyoto. For our top picks, visit our Best Budget Ryokan in Kyoto page.
You don’t have to go into the depths of the Japan Alps to find soothing countryside ryokans. In fact, there are several superb ryokan within two or three hours of Kyoto, and some only half an hour away. So if you want to add a rural break to your trip, these are our favorite ryokans near Kyoto.
Ryokan are a great choice for families, because you can all sleep in the same room. And, in some cases, you can all eat dinner in your room, so you don’t have to worry about kids misbehaving in a restaurant. For our top picks for family-friendly ryokan, visit our Best Kyoto Ryokan for Families page.
Ryokan are inherently romantic. Indeed a few nights in a good Kyoto ryokan would make for a great honeymoon. Visit our Best Kyoto Ryokan for Couples page for our top picks.
If you really want to experience Japanese-style lodgings, but want a bit more freedom, flexibility and space, you might also consider staying in a classic Kyoto machiya (traditional townhouse). Essentially, these are Japanese-style vacation rentals. Visit our Kyoto Machiya page for more details and top picks.
More Kyoto Ryokan info:
- Kyoto Ryokan overview
- Best Luxury Ryokan In Kyoto
- Best Mid Range Ryokan In Kyoto
- Best Budget Ryokan In Kyoto
- Best Ryokan Near Kyoto
- Kyoto’s Best Ryokan For Families
- Kyoto’s Best Ryokan For Couples
- Kyoto Machiya
Best High-End Ryokan In Kyoto
- Tawaraya (Read guest reviews of Tawaraya on TripAdvisor.com)
- Hiiragiya Ryokan (Read guest reviews of Hiiragiya on TripAdvisor.com)
- Ugenta (Read guest reviews of Ugenta on TripAdvisor.com)
- Hoshinoya (Read guest reviews of Hoshinoya on TripAdvisor.com)
- Seikoro (check availability on Booking.com and Agoda.com)
- Yoshida Sanso (check availability on Booking.com and Agoda.com)
- Garden Ryokan Yachiyo (check availability on Booking.com and Agoda.com)
Best Mid Price Ryokan In Kyoto
- Hirashin Ryokan (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Nishiyama Ryokan (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Ryokan Izuyasu (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
Best Budget Ryokan In Kyoto
- Kyoto Yoshimizu (Read guest reviews of Kyoto Yoshimizu on TripAdvisor.com)
- Ryokan Shimizu (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Uemera Ryokan (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Matsubaya Ryokan (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Hanakiya Ryokan (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
- Tanaka-ya (check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world